The Milton, named for a time out of Battle Creek’s past, could be catalyst for downtown’s future

Battle Creek
Aug 20 2019

The Milton, named for a time out of Battle Creek’s past, could be catalyst for downtown’s future

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground Battle Creek series and was originally posted on their website. 

Substitute The Milton building for a cornfield turned baseball field and Mark Harmsen for Kevin Costner and you’ve got Harmsen’s own version of the movie “Field of Dreams.”

OK, that may be a tad simplistic, but Harmsen is gambling on a frequently-used phrase from that movie – “If you build it, they will come.”

To date, he and a group of investors which includes the W.K. Kellogg and Battle Creek Community foundations and Battle Creek Unlimited have put about $36 million into the building that has been described as both “iconic” and “an eyesore” depending on who you talk to and the historic lens they look through. When completed the building will house 85 apartments on floors three through 19 with retail on the first and second floors.

The building is owned by Heritage Tower BC. Heritage Tower was the former name of the building.

In May, the building’s name was changed to The Milton to reflect the city’s history, says Jill Anderson, a community consultant focused on special projects and a Battle Creek native.

“Battle Creek was originally known as Milton and my research says it was named after this fellow who founded Homer and his first name was Milton,” says Anderson, who has been contracted by the Battle Creek Community Foundation to write a book detailing the history of the building.

Local historian, George Livingston, says the name Battle Creek derived from a minor skirmish in 1824 between a government land survey party and two Potawatomi Indians near a creek in what is now Bellevue Township.

Harmsen, the owner of MDH Development, says he is banking on the extensive renovation of the historic building to serve as a catalyst for further economic development in the city’s downtown area.

“That’s the game plan. It can’t just be one building, it’s got to continue,” he says. “There have got to be other activities to spur other economic activity and to make a statement. When you invest this kind of money it gets the fence sitters to jump off the fence.”

Those who have already jumped in include New Holland Brewery, which is in the midst of rehab work on a building at 64 West Michigan Avenue, and Cody and Caitlynn Newman, owners of Restore 269, who are rehabbing the former Record Printing and Box Company building at 15 Carlyle Street to be a multi-use commercial space.

During a recent tour of The Milton, Anderson, said the importance of the building to the future of the city can’t be emphasized enough.

“This building is so iconic to Battle Creek. You can see it from everywhere and people know the two towers,” Anderson says. “It stands out from everything else.”

Its stature on the landscape is only one part of the building’s significance.

“We need to have people living downtown to make it work,” Anderson says. “People will need to rely on the businesses down there and the businesses will need to rely on the people. It needs to be that whole live, work, shop and play local.”

About 13 percent of the available apartments in the Milton are pre-leased or spoken for, says Jake Vella, Senior Sales Consultant of The Milton. He says tours are available now and he anticipates the first residents being able to move in sometime in September.

The residential component of the building includes five two-bedroom penthouses, and one one-bedroom penthouse. There also is one two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment that isn’t a penthouse. The remainder are one-bedroom and studio layouts.

Each of these options include state-of-the-art stainless-steel appliances, washers and dryers, and plenty of natural light. These amenities taken together give each unit the upscale, urban feel that younger people, in particular, are looking for, Harmsen says.

The retail component of the building will include two restaurants. Harmsen says a lease has been signed with a “great, great tenant and we’ve got two other tenants for the commercial space.” He declined to identify who these tenants are.

“Overall, it’s going to be a really, really cool place to live and will be a social hub,” Harmsen says. “It’s got pretty extensive spaces where people can socialize. There will be lounge areas with high-top tables and some of these will be in the old bank vault. It’s really going to be a great place to hang out and socialize.”

Rental rates for the studio apartments start at about $900 with the priciest penthouse going for about $2,685 per month, Vella says, adding that prices will vary.

Harmsen says these are market rate apartments, primarily for people who work downtown for employers such as the Kellogg Co. But, he says The Milton is a housing option for anyone who wants an urban living experience.

Currently, there are less than 50-units of available housing for an estimated 6,000 people who work in the city’s downtown district. “We want to give them the opportunity to live and work downtown,” he says.

“We ought to be able to fill it. There’s been a lot of interest from Kellogg people, especially executives who don’t live in West Michigan and commute in. They’ve been talking to us about renting apartments.”

He says there also have been quite a few inquiries from Millennials and Baby Boomers who want the convenience of living downtown without a yard to maintain.

In the six years that he’s been on the sales and leasing end of development, Vella says he’s never done a high-rise. He says one of his more recent projects was the 15-building, 241-unit Parkway Flats complex on Kalamazoo’s west side. He says those units filled up in just under one year.

The more urban living situation that complexes such as The Milton offers appeal to people who are more environmentally conscious and want to be able to walk to restaurants, a grocery store, or the Farmer’s Market, Vella says. But, he says he thinks there is a certain demographic that is seeing the need to minimalize their lifestyle.

“My parents downsized dramatically and moved from a 5,000-square-foot house to a 1,200-square-foot house,” Vella says. “Once they were actually in their smaller space, they had a big sigh of relief.”

He says this is the more likely scenario for empty nesters who choose The Milton as a living option as opposed to Millennials who are just starting out and haven’t amassed a lifetime-worth of stuff.

“I envision (The Milton) bringing at least 85 new people who will live, work and play downtown and that’s something the area hasn’t seen in a very long time,” Vella says. “It also will create a gathering point for locals to bring out-of-towners. The mezzanine level is going to be a ‘wow’ factor.”

Harmsen says The Milton is a “really cool” building and that cool factor appeals to Millennials who don’t want to live just anywhere. “This property is off the charts. You only see buildings like this with this kind of architecture in major markets,” he says.

In its heyday, the building’s escalators were said to be a major city attraction and it contained some of the best art deco in the Midwest. These days, those same escalators are not operational and covered in dust from construction inside the building. The painted art deco designs on the ceilings have faded with time, but are still visible throughout much of the building.

The building was named Old Merchants Tower when it first opened in 1931, after the Old-Merchants National Bank and Trust Co. that it housed. It  passed through a few different owners including Comerica Bank and Random Acquisitions LLC, and at one point had its name changed to the George C. McKay Tower.

Anderson says Old-Merchants National Bank was the result of a merger between two banks – Old Merchants Savings Bank and Old National Bank – in the 1930’s. She says it was informally known as Old Merchants and became the largest bank in Michigan as well as the largest physical bank between Detroit and Chicago.

“The bank was opened for a little while and then the whole country got hit by the Depression and Old Merchants had to be reconfigured and it became Savings National Bank,” Anderson says. “Nearly half of the banks in the United States had failed and it was just this psychology of panic. Old Merchant was one of the largest banks to fail. It was closed for a while and no one had access to their money.”

But, leaders in the community decided they wanted to help the 20,000 depositors of the bank because they knew they were suffering. The four largest depositors – the Kellogg Co., WKKF, General Foods and Postum – were supposed to get 60 percent of their money released to them, but they said they could make do with 40 percent so that the bank could pay off other people, according to Anderson.

“This was a time when everybody had a bank account. Because of this Battle Creek did not get hit as badly as a lot of towns during the Depression and Kellogg had created a six-hour day, four shift production schedule, so everybody got paid a little bit less, but were able to more fully participate in the community because they had more time,” Anderson says. “Kellogg kept this production schedule until the early 1970’s.”

When the bank became Security National Bank it was led by George C. McKay, a trusted and outgoing community leader who invited 4-H youth in to display their prize-winning farm animals inside the building, always had a big Christmas tree displayed during the holidays, and had numerous other community-minded efforts to make residents feel special, Anderson says.

The physical decline of the building began in late-1990’s after Comerica, its last major tenant, moved out. Anderson says WWMT television station, which operated a Battle Creek studio there, was the last tenant. The upper stories of the tower were condemned in the early 2000’s.

“It really started going downhill after 2012. In 2013 leaks started in the roofs and that’s when the Battle Creek Community Foundation leaped into action and came up with the money to get the roof repaired. There were 16 roofs altogether (covering many nooks and crannies in the massive building), but it was a little bit too little, too late.”

Despite this, there were never any plans to tear the building down because it would have been such a huge project, Anderson says.

By this time the building was going by the moniker Heritage Tower. It was purchased in 2013 by 25 Michigan Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of Grand Rapids-based 616 Development and they were working on the redevelopment of the building.

Harmsen says his initial involvement was as a consultant to 616. “Then they wanted out of the project. It just evolved that I ended up buying the project out from them,” he says.

“I always like the challenging projects and I knew there had been developers ahead of me that had failed,” Harmsen says. “The biggest challenge was raising the money because when you do historic renovations of old, old buildings it always costs more than it’s worth when it’s done.”

Harmsen says there was an $11 million value gap. He says he already had $25 million in funding that can be paid pack with easier terms, in addition to loans and grants from the state and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the city, BCU, and foundations.

When in discussions about taking over as the building’s developer, Harmsen says he pointed out that he was the developer of the first major housing project for downtown living in Grand Rapids. That was the 32-story Plaza Tower building in downtown Grand Rapids that had to be completely rebuilt.

He says he also told leadership in Battle Creek that “if you want to turn downtown around, you’ve got to start with the most iconic building that you have.”

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